A Reduced Residential Speed Limit Is A Good Idea, And It’s Not About Us Versus Them

With the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues proposing to reduce the speed limit on residential roads from the current 50 km/hr to 40 km/hr, speed limits are, not surprisingly, back in the news in this city. In the last couple of days David Staples has written about the propped change and the Edmonton Journal has published an editorial on the subject as well. This comes on the heels of a local doctor bringing the issue to residents’ attention by saying that the city is not taking pedestrian safety seriously. Me being me, and loving Twitter more than is probably healthy, I’ve waded into the discussion on that platform on two occasions (you can find Storify records of my thoughts here and here), but it being a complex subject I thought that discussing the subject in more than 140 characters might not be a bad idea.

I’ve written about lower speed limits and the effect that can have on pedestrian safety before, so it’s not surprising that I support the idea of reducing speed limits on residential roads in Edmonton, and throughout Alberta and Canada for that matter. There are roadways where higher speed limits are appropriate but when people and cars start to mix it’s worth considering a change because at 50 km/hr people and cars are a deadly combination. Why then do we have speed limits on our local roads that are so dangerous for everyone but those that are in cars? That’s a good question.

One thing I didn’t realize when I got into transportation planning and design is that everything we do is a tradeoff. It made sense when I took the time to really think about it, but until then it’s not something that I’d even considered. If you’re designing a road or an intersection, even if you’re following the available guidelines, those tradeoffs still exist. Taken to an extreme, as a society we could eliminate a lot of the collisions that we see on our roads if we built more interchanges instead of intersections. Of course interchanges cost a whole hell of a lot more than an intersection, so we accept the risk of collisions in exchange for cost savings. It’s the tradeoff that we make.

And almost without thinking about it, we have been doing the same thing with the way we design our streets. Streets are much more than just the road itself, streets are everything between the property lines: the sidewalks, the trees, perhaps some parking, maybe a bike lane, and yes, a roadway. But the way that our roads have traditionally been designed has always been to basically trade everything that isn’t the road itself for the ability to move cars from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible. That is a fine tradeoff for those in a car, a potentially deadly tradeoff for those who are not.

That history of design is why I find something like the title of David Staples article, “Edmonton has to stop treating drivers like bad guys,” to be so frustrating (I haven’t asked, but I doubt that he came up with that headline), because the conversation isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, just about drivers, it should be about everybody. We’ve made decisions for more than half a decade based almost entirely on the needs of the driver, choosing to now think about everyone that uses the street isn’t an attack on those drivers.

Unfortunately though, that is how the discussion tends to get framed and so whenever this topic comes up fingers get pointed by both sides. “You know, if pedestrians would look up from their phones every now and then they’d be a lot less likely to get hit.” “Drivers are so busy getting to where they’re going they forget to think about what they’re doing right now.” And both are right, the other half could be better, but that alone will not solve the problem. To actually solve the problem that we have with our streets we need to first change the way we see them – as more than a way to move cars from A to B – and then how we design them.

After nearly 700 words, if you’re still reading this I’m going to assume that you’re generally on board with the idea that our streets should be for more than just cars, so now let’s consider how we go about addressing the problems that exist today.

Ideally the roads in our city would be designed in such a way that drivers wouldn’t feel comfortable driving above the speed limit. Unfortunately the tradeoff mentioned before – moving cars from A to B – has resulted in roads that tend to be wider and therefore encourage higher speeds. Now assuming money is no object the solution is simple, start redesigning roads to match the new vision. We could rebuild roads with narrower lanes widths to reduce vehicle speeds. Or start constructing intersection bulb-outs to shorten pedestrian crossing distances and to make pedestrians more visible to approaching cars. There are plenty of roads in this city that are wider than needed, we could put them on a diet and remove those lanes or replace a driving lane with a bike lane. Along corridors where speeding is a concern, maybe a series of mini-roundabouts would be a good solution.

There are plenty of things that can be done from a design perspective, but of course the money available to redesign our roads is not infinite and that means that implementing these solutions around the city won’t happen overnight. The problem still exists though and so we’ll need an interim solution as well, and that is where the idea of a speed reduction comes in. It’s the simplest, most immediate way to solve the problem of speeding, simply tell people to slow down. It’s low hanging fruit and it makes sense that we would grab it first.

David Staples is a little more generous than I am when it comes to drivers, say this “there isn’t a major problem with the attitude of drivers. The vast majority of drivers want to drive safely and follow the rules of the road, but they have ingrained habits that need changing.” Look at distracted driving, despite massive public awareness campaigns this remains a significant problem. I tend to believe that the biggest problem with drivers is that they believe that they are very good drivers and that they can get away with what might be unsafe for someone less skilled than themselves.

But despite our differences in how we view the driver, I do agree with him that, in theory at least, most Edmontonians don’t completely hate the idea of slower speeds on residential streets. The message that there is a problem seems to be reaching people, and since only a small percentage of a most vehicle trips is made on a residential street, usually right at the beginning or end, the overall impact would be relatively small for most people anyway, and people are willing to accept some changes. What bothers people about the idea of a reduced speed limit is how it’ll be enforced. In Edmonton, if recent history tells us anything, that enforcement will come via photo radar.

I don’t dislike photo radar as much as some – speeding is not okay and being punished for it is not unreasonable – but when it comes to photo radar there are some very reasonable complaints. It’s not a terribly effective tool in reducing speeds in the long term, in part because of the delayed feedback between the offence and the finding out that you were speeding when you check the mail the next week. That’s not to say that it has no value, just that it probably shouldn’t be seen as anything more than a first step, ideally with design changes to follow that will provide a more permanent, and effective, solution to the problem. It’s just one tool in the toolbox.

Another tool being used by the City is driver feedback signs, these display your speed and flash is you’re speeding. These have been installed in a couple of locations that I see fairly regularly, along 99 Street, south of the river and on Groat Road, and anecdotally at least, I would say that both do a good job of letting drivers know where they stand. I’m sure that drivers would prefer to see more of these signs than additional photo radar since there is no potential fine but that doesn’t mean photo radar should be scrapped and replaced by these signs tomorrow, there are situations where both will provide the city with some value.

The same goes for pavement messages around school zones. A good idea, one that could help to alert drivers to a changing speed limit, but our roads are also covered in snow for five-ish months a year so it’s a solution that’s got some challenges as well. Additional signage can help but we have to be careful to not overwhelm the driver with too much information distracting them from actually driving. But let’s give both a try. The same goes for pop bike lanes or temporary intersection bulb-outs, a couple of simple, low cost solutions that could provide significant safety benefits. As a city, as long as we’re trying to make improvements, and figuring out why something worked or why it didn’t work, I think we’ll be moving in the right direction.

It’s going to take years to design and build a safer and more inclusive city, one that better balances the needs of the driver with the other users of the street. Getting there isn’t going to be easy but it’ll be worth it in the end. In the meantime there are things that we can do to make our roads safer today, and lower residential speed limits would be a good place to start.